To recap, we are currently in Vietnam. We arrived after an all too brief visit to Hong Kong, a place that we loved instantly and would love to return to for a much longer visit. If only we had the funds!
We flew from Hong Kong to Hanoi, Vietnam's capital city, with very little planned (unlike China). We had a rough outline of where we wanted to go, what we wanted to see and how we were going to get there, but with only our first hotel booked and a flight departing from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) to Bangkok.
This was our chance to try to be a bit more spontaneous with our travels… Not too spontaneous though!
How to get a visa for Vietnam
To enter Vietnam you need to have a visa, if you are organised you can apply for it in advance of your trip, if you are like us and didn't know when we would be going to Vietnam when we could apply for one (without having to do it express i.e. expensive) you can get a visa on arrival. This is a bit of a misnomer as you need a letter of invitation to be able to get a visa on arrival. These letters are easy to get (just Google it) but do cost money. We used www.vietnamvisapro.com and it cost just $10 each, there is no difference between any of the service providers so don't get conned into paying any more than this!
Hanging out in the Old Quarter
Hanoi was a pleasant surprise. I don't really know what we were expecting, but Hanoi was not it. We stayed in the Old Quarter which has narrow roads, bikes parked up on the pavements, people sitting and eating on the pavements at makeshift restaurants, street sellers and tourists walking in the road with bikes weaving between and cars trying to get through the narrowest of streets. It was crazy; an amazing place for people watching!
As our introduction to Vietnam, Hanoi seems to have done an excellent job.
The food was amazing, the only bad food that we had was when we had a sandwich (They lied to us! They said it would be baguette bread. It wasn't). Everything was delicious, fresh and tasty and the best part was that it was so easy to find and eat! One of the problems that we had in China was being a bit restricted about where we could go to eat because we couldn't order the food. Another was that a fair amount of it was quite greasy and most likely covered in MSG. We barely ate any vegetables whilst we were there. Vietnam had already, within the space of day, surprised us and demonstrated further how different China is to other countries.
We've gotten a bit lazy recently, so we didn't really get up to much whilst we were in Hanoi. We sorted out the details of our next destination (Hue), opting for a sleeper train rather than a sleeper bus. We tried to buy tickets at the train station but they claimed they were sold out so we ended up having to buy them via our hotel which cost us a bit more. We wandered around the Old Quarter and somewhat enjoyed the hustle and bustle – there is only so much fun in walking around and avoiding bikes and street sellers!
The one attraction that we made it to was Hỏa Lò Prison aka Hanoi Hilton. The actual prison was demolished during the 90s, though the gatehouse remains as a museum. The Hỏa Lò Prison was a prison used by the French colonists in Vietnam for political prisoners, and later by the North Vietnamese for foreign captives during the Vietnam War. It was interesting to see the way the prison was used, and the stark contrast between the way the French treated prisoners to the somewhat hospitable treatment of the imprisoned American pilots (John McCain being the most famous held here).
Whilst in Hanoi, we booked a 3 day/2 night trip to Halong Bay; you can't go to Vietnam and not see Halong Bay and you can't go to Halong Bay without going on a tour. We shopped around a little bit because we had read various horror stories online, but to be honest, most tours are identical. The only differences are probably the standard of food and whether or not there is air conditioning. The ones that sound much more exciting, cost a lot more. We chose a tour that had one night on the boat, and one night on CatBa Island (the biggest island in Halong Bay).
To get to the harbour from Hanoi we had a 3 hour bus ride on a very cramped minibus – the seats were made for Vietnamese people who are much smaller than us fat westerners. Once there, we were transported on a little boat to our boat for the next day further out in the harbour, checked in and had lunch. The boat took us to the biggest cave in the bay, Sung Sot. It is a popular stop for the many Halong Bay boat tours so don't expect it to be a quiet experience.
After the Sung Sot stop we headed to Titop Island for the views of the bay and a quick swim. The walk up to the top of the mount was brutal (427 stone steps) but worth it. The 360 degree view was incredible.
Dinner and squid fishing (failed miserably) and then off to bed!
Day 2 was another early start for breakfast (7am!) before heading out to go kayaking for an hour. My arms (and just generally me) were not prepared for that amount of work. It really didn't help when Darryl lost one of his paddles to the Bay, and then it started to rain. We managed to reach a cove for shelter to wait for the rain to pass, luckily our guide swapped paddles with Darryl so he could actually do some of the work! Heading back to the boat to check out and wait for our next boat to arrive. The majority of our fellow passengers were only doing a 2day/1night tour so would be heading back to shore, but we would be transferring to a smaller boat which would take us to CatBa Island. Unfortunately this is right when there was a torrential downpour which delayed our boat, once it arrived we quickly jumped on and were away to CatBa Island.
Our first stop was CatBa National Park for a bike ride, this was much easier said than done. Remember what I just said about the torrential downpour? Yeh, that happened in the national park too, where they were doing some road/path (?) works. So we got a bit stuck in the clay mud and we got covered in mud, our bikes got jammed with it too. Clay mud is the WORST. With a little bit of help we cleaned our bikes up and continued on our way through the park. It was really quiet and peaceful, the scenery was beautiful. I would have taken more photos but I'm rubbish at cycling so can't take a hand off the bike, or really just stop and start. Darryl did manage to film his cycle back though so you can look forward to that!
Back on the boat we had the chance to have a swim before lunch. Darryl even jumped off the boat but only after climbing up and debating it for ages. After lunch we headed for CatBa town to check in to our government run hotel. Once there we had some free time to explore the town before dinner. Us being lazy, we chose to have a nap instead but we did wander around after dinner.
CatBa Island was one of the places that we had wanted to visit, originally we had wanted to stay there for a couple of days but then found that combining a short visit with a Halong Bay tour was a bit more cost effective, but it was very different to what we had expected. I don't think we had expected it to be quite so developed or touristy – I don't know why. Darryl likened it to being in Spain, it just had that resort town vibe to it.
The third day began with a power-cut just as we stepped onto the lift to go down for breakfast. Luckily Darryl managed to keep the doors from closing so we could jump out. We were up on the 10th floor so it was a bit of chore walking down the stairs for breakfast, and then back up. And then we remembered we had to check out, which meant getting our bags down the stairs. Not too much of a problem with a backpack, but now Darryl has a suitcase so it took a bit more effort. The power stayed off until just before the bus came to pick us up for our extra long day of travelling to get back to our hotel in Hanoi at 5pm.
We spent another night in Hanoi before getting the sleeper train to Hue, which as you may have already read wasn't our favourite place.